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of Note

The Ballad of Black Tom
By Victor LaValle

...plus “The Horror at Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft (1925)

Discussed October 2019

Buy The Ballad of Black Tom from Amazon.com

Characters in both stories:

  • Robert Suydam (wealthy recluse, cultist leader)
  • Det. Thomas Malone (NYPD, occult investigator)

Characters only in The Ballad of Black Tom:

  • Charles Thomas Tester, aka Tommy, aka Black Tom (hustler, “delivery man” & self-styled entertainer)
  • Otis Tester (his father)
  • Ervin Howard (private detective)
  • Ma Att (supernatural entity)

Questions

  1. How do you interpret LaValle’s dedication for The Ballad of Black Tom? (“For HP Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”)
  2. Let’s talk about “literary merits”. How would you compare “The Horror at Red Hook” and The Ballad of Black Tom? (Interesting note: Both titles have 6 syllables.)
  3. Compare and contrast Lovecraft’s depiction of 1920s NYC in “Red Hook” with LaValle’s depiction of 1920s NYC in Ballad. Do you feel they’re both accurate? Do you feel that they’re they both “missing something”?
  4. What does “Red Hook” seem to reveal about Lovecraft’s views about non-whites and immigrants? How does this contrast with LaValle’s depiction of race relations in 1920s NYC?
  5. How did Charles Thomas Tester become “Black Tom”? Do you have any ideas about why LaValle chose to “rename” the character? Who and what is “Black Tom” – protagonist, villain, tragic hero, other?
  6. Is there a “different version” of Det. Malone in each of the stories? If so, what’s different about them? What do you think about LaValle’s addition of “Ervin Howard” to the storyline?
  7. If you’ve read other Lovecraft stories, do you consider “Red Hook” to be “a typical Lovecraftian story”?  Do you consider Ballad to be “a typical Lovecraftian story”? Why or why not?
  8. How do Lovecraft’s depictions of the supernatural elements in “Red Hook” differ from LaValle’s depictions of the supernatural elements in Ballad? Did you prefer one over the other?
  9. What do you think about LaValle’s depictions of “Ma Att” and “The Sleeping King”?
  10. There’s a massive divergence between the two stories when describing what happened after Malone entered the Parker Place tenements that had become Suydam’s cult headquarters. What’s your opinion about how Lovecraft and LaValle handled their different storylines?
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